The Internet has a lot of good information, and a lot of bad. If you are a Christian struggling with depression, you might want to search on the Internet for helpful information. You want something that not only helps with depression but addresses the extra dimensions that Christian faith adds to it. For example, I came across one person who said when a psychiatrist told him he would need medication, he felt “like a failure.”
I know what he meant. He felt like a failure because, for Christians, it’s so easy to get the idea that you shouldn’t need help for depression beyond talking to someone, praying, living a faithful life, and obeying the Word. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13), so Jesus and faith in Him should be all you need. That might be what you’re telling yourself, and it might be what your church tells you and what you hear from preachers on TV. But you’ve done all that, and you’re still depressed. It must be your fault, right? Wrong. The causes of depression are not just spiritual, and they are not a failure of faith. You need to address more than just spiritual issues. You need to understand there are physical and psychological reasons for depression. And most of all, you need to arm yourself with accurate knowledge so you know how to find the right kind of help.
Separating the Wheat from the Chaff
To see what’s out there, I searched “depressed christian” on Pchsearch. (Google isn’t offering the chance to win $5000/week for life. Who knows? I might win. And, as unchristian as it might sound, I think some financial security would help my depression to some degree. I’ll probably need to say more about that another time).
As usual with the Internet, the results were relevant but very unequal in quality. They ranged from wonderfully helpful to downright awful, with varying degrees in between. I have ranked my first page results using the customary 5-Star scale, and included notes below about the reasons for the ranking. This is just a first step. The goal here is to help you separate good information from bad.
The articles with a 5-Star rating meet these 4 criteria:
- The author has experience helping people with depression, either professionally or personally, and uses sound research.
- The author understands the unique ways a person’s Christian faith affects their experience of depression – how it can either help or hinder recovery.
- The author addresses physiological causes of depression. Religious people will always recognize spiritual causes. That’s part of the equation, but just as with physical illness, you cannot properly treat it if you don’t acknowledge the physical causes.
- The author clearly distinguishes between Clinical/Major Depression (and similar types that are caused by deficiencies or imbalances in brain chemistry) and what I will call “situational depression,” a normal (and often healthy) response of sadness and grief due to some tragic life event or loss.
And of course, the scale goes down from there. Drum roll please…
Setting the Bar for everyone
Brandon W. Peach. (2014, February 20). 5 Things Christians Should Know about Depression and Anxiety. Relevant Magazine.
Not only meets the standards I laid out but also does a great job in identifying the most common pitfalls for people seeking help from the church – and the pitfalls of a well-meaning but ill-informed church giving “help.”
Mark Mounts. (n.d.). It Can’t Be Depression. I’m a Christian. Grace Commission International.
If you felt shame or failure over depression because you are a Christian and think Jesus should be all you need, imagine how that is magnified if you are a pastor or priest. That was this author’s situation.
Includes a Sidebar with the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of a “major depressive episode.” This part is a little technical, so here are some terms you might need help with:
- Psychomotor agitation = purposeless, intense restlessness brought on by mental tension
- Psychomotor retardation = slowing down of thought and action, most commonly seen in major depression or bipolar disorder.
Author unknown. (n.d.). Christians: Take Depression Seriously. Beliefnet.
The colon is very important in this title. With the colon, it’s an imperative, as in, “Hey Christians! Take depression seriously!” Without it, you have “Christians take depression seriously” as if it’s a statement of fact. Unfortunately, not all Christians take depression seriously.
As the article says, “Those who try to dissuade religious people from getting medical help for clinical depression, claiming that faith alone is the cure, can do devastating harm.”
I’m giving it four stars instead of five because 1) It talks about situational depression vs. clinical depression, but does not distinguish them as clearly as the two five-star articles, and 2) This sentence is confusing: “Psychoanalysis can dig out of the subconscious such ugly realities so that they can be dealt with the effects negated.”
…so they can be dealt with the effects negated. What is dealt with? What is negated? Are the effects dealt with or negated? This is why grammar and proofreading matter.
Still, though, the information is good. The author uses real life and Biblical examples that illustrate vividly just how important it is to take depression seriously and get proper treatment.
Karen Morgan. (2004). Depression in the Christian Family: (Part 4 of 5 in Depression series). Focus on the Family.
Both this article and the series have very good advice. I would have given it five stars except it comes from Focus on the Family. I have heard James Dobson, the ministry’s founder, tell parents to reject their LGBTQ children until they agree to live “according to the Word of God.”
This is exactly the kind of rejection that causes LGBTQ teenagers as a group to have a higher rate of depression and suicide than their straight peers. Therefore, I cannot recommend this without a caveat of saying if you are LGBTQ, then aside from this article and series, stay away from Focus on the Family and Dr. Dobson.
However, if you can separate out that baggage and judge the article on its own merits, it’s worth reading. It tells the story of Earle and his experience with severe depression that led him to seek counseling, medication, and even go on disability for a few months. He describes the issues honestly and in a way a depressed Christian will understand.
Another reason I like this article is indicated in the title. Earle’s depression affected his entire family. And that’s something many people don’t think about. Depression doesn’t just affect the depressed person. It causes you to behave in ways that people around you don’t know how to handle, no matter how much they love you. Hopefully, realizing that will prompt you to get the help you need.
Stephanie Husk, M.S.W. (2013, April 11) Do Real Christians Get Depressed? Crosswalk.
First impression, I gave it three stars. However, as I’ve looked over it again, I decided to upgrade it to four. For the most part, there is good advice here – for situational depression, and Clinical Depression as well. It might appear to point to sin, i.e., personal failure, as the cause of depression, but it’s actually more nuanced than that. Take this statement for example (I bolded some parts to make the meaning clearer):
- “…problems in our brain’s chemistry or in our body’s functions are ultimately a spiritual problem…since all of creation is affected by sin. However, this does not mean that the depression is necessarily a result of individual spiritual shortcomings. It also does not mean that a person shouldn’t seek out healthy relief wherever it may be found. Every good and perfect gift comes from above. Solutions to prolonged depression are no less spiritual if they come in the form of changed diet, exercise, cognitive counseling, or medication.”
The “sin” talked about here should probably have a capital S, because it is much bigger than your or anyone else’s individual sins. It is much bigger than social sins of a community, institution, or nation. It is even bigger than the sin of all humanity, as in “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). It is a condition of brokenness, decay, and mortality that afflicts not only humanity but all of creation (Rom. 8:22-23). In this sense, I think it is healthy to acknowledge Sin (with a capital S) as a cause of depression. But I reject any preaching that says you are depressed because you are not “obeying the Word,” you are not praying enough, you don’t have enough faith, or anything along those lines. When you have Clinical Depression, the primary cause is physical, not spiritual.
Various. (n.d.). How to Cope with Depression as a Christian. Wikihow.
It gives seven steps to cope with depression. Most of the advice is good, though the style makes for awkward reading. Also, some of the “related articles” are not what I ascribe to. Particularly, one says “How to convert a Muslim to Christianity.” My experience of engaging religion and spirituality with a clinically depressed mind is almost exclusively Christian. How Depression affects the experience of Islam, Judaism, or any other religion is something I’d like to address at some point, with people who are more qualified than me.
Now if a Muslim is interested in what being a Christian means to me, I’m happy to share it. And if anything about my experience helps them with depression, to God be the glory. But I know how I would feel if someone said to me, “You must convert to Islam in order to be saved,” or, “Only Muhammad can heal your depression.” I won’t be the one who does that to someone whose faith is different from mine.
Various. (n.d.). What Does the Bible Say about Depression? How Can Christians Overcome Depression? Got Questions?
Distinguishes between situational and clinical depression, which is very important. The description of clinical depression is pretty good, but it needs some editing. As in the following with my comments in parentheses.
- “It may not be caused by unfortunate life circumstances…” (Change may not to is not. We are talking about clinical depression now, not situational),
- “…nor can the symptoms be alleviated by one’s own will (True. A five-star statement).
- “Contrary to what some in the Christian community believe, clinical depression is not always caused by sin (Delete always. Clinical depression by definition means the cause is physiological, not spiritual).
- “They should make sure that they are staying in the Word, even when they do not feel like it. Emotions can lead us astray, but God’s Word stands firm and unchanging (This is an example where, yes it’s true, but it’s important to put it in the right context. And I have to ask, what do you mean be staying in the Word? That can mean different things to different people).
- “Although being depressed is not a sin, one is still accountable for the response to the affliction, including getting the professional help that is needed (stress the last part of this sentence. Without that, I would reject this advice. For someone in major depression, you
are accountable for your response is like you should have more faith – whatever that means. The thing to understand if your depression is as bad as Earle (see “Christian Family” article above) is you are accountable in as much as you cannot get out of this darkness on your own, but you can and must get professional help).
One statement was dead on, though. “However, in some cases, seeing a doctor for depression is no different than seeing a doctor for an injury”
Amen and amen! If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this. Seeing a doctor [or psychiatrist or therapist] for depression is no different than seeing a doctor for an injury.
Various. (n.d.). Christian Testimonies about Depression and Suicide. About.com, Christianity.
47 stories of people who found peace to “overcome” depression. Why the quotes? I am always skeptical when people say they are cured or have overcome depression, as if Depression has been banished to the Outer Darkness, wailing and gnashing its teeth, never to return. If so, it probably wasn’t Clinical Depression but situational. They don’t give specifics about how they were cured beyond “Jesus is the answer.”
There was a time when I would have given this five stars. “Jesus is the answer,” I would say as the solution to any problem. Well, that didn’t always work for me, so how can I expect it to work for Muslims, Jews, or even all Christians? I can’t promote that or anything as the one and only answer for depression anymore.
But the stories might give hope to some people.
Various. (1996, 1999). What Should a Christian Do if Overwhelmed with Depression? Christian Answers.
Although it does acknowledge some kinds of depression are caused by chemical imbalances and may require medication and/or professional help, it puts the stress on spiritual causes: sin, not following the Word, not believing the Bible, etc.
It says, “Aim to work on the causes of your depression, not just the symptoms,” which is what I advocate as well. But working on the real causes requires professional help, not a few Bible verses and a sermon.
Author unknown. (n.d.). Overcoming Depression. CBN.
Causes named: Physical (not taking care of yourself, illness, medication), Losses and other hurts, Sin.
Not one mention of clinical, bipolar, or any form of depression which is primarily caused by chemical imbalances. Here are some examples that show why:
- “The Bible says that Jesus ‘bore our griefs’ on the cross (Isaiah 53:4 NAS). He feels our pain as strongly as we do and will carry it for us. Give your hurt to Him. (As in the article above, this can be helpful in the right context. But what do you do next? His answer is…).
- “Then resolve not to dwell on it again.” (The worst thing to say to someone with Clinical Depression! Right up there with, Stop sinning. Snap out of it. Pray the depression away. All the answers are in the Bible. You’ve got to have more faith.)
Faith, prayer, and Bible study can all be powerful tools in recovery. They are often enough to get over situational depression (though even then not always). But if you are Christian and seeking help for Clinical Depression, I know you’ve already done these things, and they were not enough. And most importantly, it is not your fault that they weren’t enough. Refer to Earle’s story above in the “Christian Family” article.
Melissa Barnhart. (2013, April 11). Christian Counselor: Depression Demands Living by Faith, Not by Sight. The Christian Post.
Author named is not the professional referred to. Subject of the article is the “professional” who gives this advice. At first I gave the article one star, but then I realized it does not even deserve that, because it comes from a licensed professional. So what is the opposite of a star? A black hole (which happens to be shaped like a Zero).
All about “spiritual causes” of depression, not a word about the physiological causes. Christian or not, a licensed neuropsychologist really should know better.
So that is a sampling of the advice that is out there. As I said above, the intention with this article is to help you separate good sources of information from bad. Some of the “bad” advice can be true and helpful in the right context, as I alluded to a couple of times. What is the right context? That is something I hope to address in future posts. In general, it goes back to the criteria I named above. If you have a type of depression that has physiological causes, you need more than a “spiritual” answer. Just like if I break my arm, I will pray. But I will also get to a doctor as soon as I can.
In coping with depression, I used and still use spiritual sources of comfort. However, I did not get better until I was properly diagnosed and able to address the physical causes as well as the spiritual. That is why I am so adamant about not reducing everything down to “sin” or “lack of faith.” If that messes with your theology, I’m sorry. But I know what kind of religion/faith/spirituality (whatever you want to call it) helped me, and what kind made everything worse. And to paraphrase Paul, I will not submit again to bad faith just to accommodate your dogma.
Diet & Exercise –